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November 1, 2010

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Stress a “ticking time-bomb” that needs to be defused

The evidence is clear and consistent that work-related stress has severe implications for employee health and society, but the problem is getting worse against the background of economic crisis, cost-cutting, and Lord Young’s views on what constitutes low risk.

This is the conclusion of a major new report on stress at work, which was commissioned by the British Academy to evaluate the current state of research on work-related stress, as well as the potential effects of the economic crisis on the issue. Its publication comes just before the 12th annual National Stress Awareness Day, on 3 November.
The report’s author, Tarani Chandola, professor of medical sociology at the University of Manchester, emphasised that work-related stress is a common determinant of mental disorders and cardiovascular disease, and is heavily linked to sickness absence.
Speaking at the launch of the report at the British Academy on 29 October, Prof Chandola said: “Since 2009, there has been a sharp rise in job strain and job insecurity, both determinants of work-related stress. Conflict at work, in the form of poor support and bullying, has also increased, as has work-life balance as an issue.”
He added that although the HSE’s management standards for stress have been around for six years now, “there has been little change in stress levels, or the scale of the problem”.
Prof Chandola attributed this in part to a lack of focus on job quality, wondering: “Why do we treat people with illnesses like depression, only to then return them to the same conditions that caused the problem in the first place? There is a tension between job quality and any job at any cost, but I don’t think we have the luxury of saying that job quality doesn’t matter. It does.”
His theory was echoed by Prof Sir Michael Marmot, lead author of the longitudinal Whitehall II study of civil servants, who said creating “fair employment” is key to tackling the stress problem.
He explained: “People should take control of their own lives but the ability to do so is strongly influenced by the circumstances in which they find themselves. The economic crisis is changing that control even more. The quality of work does matter – the effort/reward imbalance is linked to poor health.”
And perhaps as a comment on the Government’s current welfare-reform drive, a key part of which is to get as many people into work as possible, the professor added: “We need to create the conditions that enable people to be healthier for longer. There is no point getting people into insecure, poor-quality jobs. That doesn’t work – the quality of jobs matters.”
Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, which released its own report on stress last week, said the reason why a preventable problem like stress is not being prevented is because too many employers are consigning it to the “too difficult” box. But, maintained Barber, the solution is clear: “It’s the same as any other hazard: risk-assess. We can identify the likely stressors in the workplace, so deal with them.”
The main barrier to improving the situation, he suggested, is lack of enforcement, with employers being well aware that the chances of a prosecution for not tackling stress are “almost nil”. And this will only get worse in the wake of the Young Review.
Explained Barber: “Despite all the evidence, Lord Young said offices and schools are low-risk and therefore the level of enforcement should be reduced. This will be compounded by the cut in the HSE’s budget of 35 per cent.
“But the world of work has moved on – the hazards are no longer only in the factories and on construction sites, but the Government doesn’t seem to recognise this.”
He concluded: “We are facing a ticking time-bomb that will potentially have devastating effects on us all. But it doesn’t have to pan out like this – as the Prof Chandola’s report says, there is a need for specific legislation and enough people to enforce it. We need to push the stress level down before it becomes a 21st-century epidemic.”
National Stress Awareness Day is organised by the International Stress Management Association UK and its websites features a whole host of information on avoiding and dealing with stress, as well as resources to mark the day, including two live webinars. To find out more, visit
The British Academy Policy Centre’s report, Stress at Work, can be downloaded from here.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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13 years ago

with the progression of medical technology ” back pain” is no longer a cash cow for the sick lame and lazy, enter into the arena stress in all its many forms
stress the back pain of the new century